I have a problem with anime that are all about games. Be it those with terrible games to begin with like Kakegurui, those whose games vary from good to bad like No Game No Life or even the greats like Kaiji – I invariably find myself annoyed at some point while watching these shows. And it’s all because of the cheating. There will be spoilers ahead.
In all of the anime named above there is no such thing as a pure contest of skill, unless you consider the creativity of the players cheats to be a skill. The games in these shows are practically defined by cheating – the only one I can think of offhand where that isn’t the case is during No Game No Life’s best game, Materialization Shiritori (I think that name is off a little but whatever it’s the shiritori game against Jibril). Now in Kakegurui and Kaiji the cheating is more understandable since all of the games they play, at least of all the games I saw for Kakegurui, would be largely based on luck – so if you add cheating into the mix you not only give people more agency you also give then a greater chance to show their wit as they uncover and beat the opponents cheat. And sometimes this works out to great effect. However I also don’t think it’s necessary because the Poker scene from the James Bond movie Casino Royale was still a great scene with no cheating involved at all – there was nothing there but intuition, guesswork and drama and yet it still turned out great.
Moreover what I’ve been describing thus far with regards to cheating is the “good stuff” there’s plenty of cheating which actively makes me hate a game/contest more than if it had been absent. Both No Game No Life and Kaiji have scenes where the cheating is stupidly blatant but the game goes on anyway and it just makes me want to tear my hair out. Take for example the magical chess game in No Game No Life. Keeping in mind that this game has a third party judge I think it’s weird that the opponent even got away being able to move her pawns an extra space forward because that’s against the rules of chess – but she hand-waved it by bullshitting everyone about one’s ability to command so they let slide. That’s not terrible even if it doesn’t make sense. But when the opponent is on the back foot, because Blank are objectively better than her at Chess, and uses magic to start turning Blank’s white pieces which touch her own pieces into more black pieces I call BULLSHIT. That’s so blatant she should lose by default, especially in No Game No Life where you say look this is clearly magic, and we – Blank – can’t use magic ergo she’s cheating.
The same goes for Kaiji during the his bloated battle against the pachinko machine called the Bog. When the casino manager Ichijou turns on the blocker and blocks two hundred straight balls, of which 6 or 7 should have gone through, and everyone watching the game knows he’s cheating, HE SHOULD LOSE. But he doesn’t because Kaiji keeps playing and busts the blocker anyway. And since there was some setup and Kaiji’s workaround was predictable at least in the broad strokes, fine, I’m still annoyed but whatever it was cool to see how he broke it. But then comes the vents, when Kaiji reaches a point in the game where he literally can’t lose, Ichijou activates air vents to block the jackpot even though he said they were too obvious in the past. Again it’s fishy as fuck even the first time it happens when it knocks away two balls but when the plate is overrun by balls and none can drop in the only open hole it becomes obvious that he’s cheating – and he should lose be default. He doesn’t because he’s a mafia run illegal casino but to me he should have lost by that point and not having him do so seems like little more than a way to lengthen a game which is already taking too fucking long.
All of that said it’s not like I hate all cheating. Ironically enough Kakegurui has the best consistent cheating because the games and characters themselves are of such a lower caliber in comparison to the other shows that they are generally made subtle enough not to totally break my suspension of disbelief like the cheats of the last two paragraphs did. And when Kaiji cuts his own ear off and covers it up to beat Tonegawa in E-Card, that shit was badass. Again though, these cheats are more manageable because they are subtle or hidden in some way and it’s not obvious to everyone watching exactly what’s going on. The only time I can of where blatant cheating was good is my favorite episode of Kaiji when he reveals how Ootsuki is cheating at chinchiro and then with everyone’s approval uses a better cheat of his own devising to rob Ootsuki of all his money. This works because it’s satisfying as fuck to watch and also because after Ootsuki’s cheat is revealed the in-universe audience are on his side, the opposite of how they reacted to Ichijou’s cheating with the Bog. That said I do think it’s telling that my favorite games in No Game No Life and Kaiji are the games with no cheating and crowd-sanctioned cheating respectively.
And that’s because I would rather see a contest of wit and skill go unaltered by cheating. Which incidentally is why my favorite game-centric anime is Mondaiji (sorry Kaiji you were great but Mondaiji never made me angry the way the Bog did). Mondaiji is practically devoid of cheating and all of the contests are overcome by skill, strength, wit and teamwork when required. In fact the only real cheating is before the game when an enemy team might do something to sabotage the good guys or stack the odds in their favor going in – and even that is rare – but even in those cases the games themselves are not based around the cheating, they largely play out as intended so long as the protagonists get gud and over the cheat without using cheats of their own. Does that make the games more basic? Sure, nothing in Mondaiji comes close to the complex twists and turns which turn of games into the convoluted trials which Kaiji has to overcome. But that doesn’t mean Mondaiji can’t have complex and challenging games of it’s own, it uses mythology and stories to excellent effect when crafting some of it’s more complex contests – even if strength is the ultimate deciding factor.
Ultimately I have a strong attachment to fair play and most of the well known and/or well regarded game-centric anime are all about the cheating. And like I said above, while this does work out great sometimes it also can bust big time and drag me out of the action and actively piss me off. Not to pick on Kaiji because overall I did enjoy it but during the last few episodes of the Bog arc I wanted to scream obscenities at anyone who would listen – and my neighbors and roommate were lucky in that I’m not rude enough to wake them up to do that. By comparison fair play is always solid in my book, even subtle cheating that is clever and not something which drags me out of the experience will generally lose to decent contests of fair play. Thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed it.